Isla Mocha

We did get some good advice at Casa Chueca - Franz recommended a stay on Isla Mocha, which gave us the chance to visit another of Chile's hidden gems.

Isla Mocha is an island 28 km off the coast south of Concepcion. Occupied first by Mapuche Indians, visited by pirates such as Sir Francis Drake, it is now home to over 600 people who live on the flattish coastal fringe that lies between the rocky platforms and isolated windswept sandy beaches and the steep central hills covered in superb temperate rain forest. Here they raise cattle and sheep, fish, collect seaweed and snail slime (for export to pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies) and lead simpler self-sufficient lives.

Motor vehicles are rare and the horse and cart is the preferred means of transport, but that is not to say that Mocha is backwards - small wind turbines and banks of photovoltaic cells generate electricity at individual properties while satellite dishes provide internet and TV connection to the wider world. It is just that here, life moves at a very different pace.

Life moves at a different pace on Isla Mocha

Getting There

You first begin to appreciate the isolation of Isla Mocha when you try to get there; it took us all day and three changes of bus to travel from Talca to Concepcion and then slowly through the coastal hills, covered in pines eucalypts and gorse, to the small coastal fishing village of Tirua. In fact, we arrived just after 8pm, with the sun about to set - not a good time considering that the next phase of our journey was a flight in a 4-seater Cessna, 35km west across the Pacific, to our accommodation on the southern end of Isla Mocha. We knew we were pushing the limits when our driver sped away from the Tirua bus station and up the hill to the airstrip, where the Cessna was waiting - our pilot and host, Mario greeting us with a broad smile.

Before we had time to say "hola, éste es nuestro primer vuelo jamas en una avioneta" - we were roaring down the runway, lifting off and circling over the coastal hills of Chile before heading out in a beeline toward the flashing dot of the lighthouse on Isla Mocha; very different from the hours of waiting at bus terminals en route! The trip was incredibly smooth in the calm evening air and we were just starting to enjoy it when the Cessna dropped down to land smoothly on the grass runway, taxi out onto the dirt road and up the drive to Mario's house - we had arrived at Casa Hahn, our home for the next three nights. When we saw the glow of the woodfire and the big soft doonah on our bed in the spacious timberlined guest quarters, we knew it was going to be a pleasant stay - the fresh seafood dinner awaiting us only confirmed this.

Crossing the Pacific to Isla Mocha

Final approach as the ligth fades

Casa Hahn - our home on Isla Mocha

The fair Nello and Mario's Cessna

Day 1 - Exploring the coast (14km - 30m ascent - 30m descent)

That night the front passed through, the wind rattling the windows and the rain squalls sweeping by like jets from a high pressure hose; we appreciated our good fortune in getting here before the weather. Still by mid-morning, the rain had largely gone and, fuelled by a breakfast of home-made bread, jams and cheese, we were ready to head off with Mario in his old yellow 4WD.

Rock platform on the southwest coast

Proud of his island and his heritage, Mario showed us some of the isolated beaches, islets and rock platforms of the west coast of the island - stopping to watch the natural gas that seeped up through the beach sand bubble through the seawater as it ebbed and flowed, and to inspect the "faro viejo" - Chile's second oldest lighthouse - on its rocky pedestal. It was almost covered by the tsunami that swept over the island after the world's strongest recorded earthquake hit Chile in 1960.

Nello, Mario and the old yellow Toyota

The old lighthouse

Closeup of Chile's second oldest lighthouse

Brown hawk on the dunes

Humboldt penguin in the surf

Heading off for a stroll along the island's road

Isolated beach

Natural gas bubbling up through the sand of the intertidal zone

Rock platforms north of Playa Blanca

Kelp gull

Red-headed vulture

Crossing the long stretch of white sand of the Playa Blanca, we climbed up into the dunes, covered in small dark-green agaves, to look down on a beautiful cove backing into the intensely green pastures of the coastal strip. Kelp gulls and red-headed vultures soared overhead, adding to the windswept mystique of the setting.

Loking back across the dunes to Playa Blanca

The intense green of the coastal fringe

After the rain, the steep track here was too slippery for even the 4WD, so we returned in time for an enormous lunch of soup, beef and poached plums (all home produce). We would need a siesta before setting out on foot to explore the southern part of the island and it was almost 4pm by the time we left. Still, on this flat coastal strip we still managed a nice 14km "stroll" along the white sandy road beside cattle and sheep grazing contentedy in the green pastures, the steep tree-clad hills at our left and a wild wind-whipped sea at our right.

Cliffs of the southern end

Road around the southern end of the island

Mocha coastal scene

The most common inhabitants of the coastal fringe

The forest meets the fields

All along our walk was accompanied by the sounds of birds; the scolding of lapwings, high-pitched piping of curlews, mournful wailing of gulls and short guttural calls of bandurria (or black-faced ibis) as they probed the fields with their long curved bills. Isla Mocha is a bird-lovers paradise with over 100 species recorded.

Some of the many bird species that call Isla Mocha home

After cadging a brief lift with one of the local families in their horse and cart, we checked our watches, remembered how good dinner had been the previous night and headed back. We were not disappointed!

Day 2 - Crossing the forest (8km - 330m ascent - 350m descent)

The low sand flats of the south-east corner

Metre- wide leaves and flower spikes of nalca

Silver sea and grey skies

Fishing boats at the cove

The next morning, Mario drove us around to the "village" on the eastern side of the island - a cluster of a few houses, carabineros office and church, where the cross-island walking trail started. We headed off inland on the Sendero Nuevo, quickly crossing the open fields to reach the edge of the hills, the forest and the National Park.

Here the track climbed up into a low pass that crossed to the western side. However, we almost immediately left that to climb steeply up the dense, shrub and tree covered slope to the south - our destination was the mature forest higher up and Laguna Hermosa, one of several small freshwater lakes that occur in the hollows of these hills.

The small stone and timber church of Isla Mocha

Crossing the paddocks to start the cross island track

Epiphyte-covered forest giant

The well-formed track, aided by wooden steps on the steeper parts, led us quickly up the steep hillside, with occasional glimpses out over the grassy fields of the eastern coastline. Reaching the ridgeline, we made a brief pause at a lookout with more substantial views, before pushing on up to the top of the ridge and the highpoint of the walk at 360m.

A grove of orange-barked arrayanes

Looking for the forest birds

View over the east coast from the ridge top

The big arrayan

We were now in the deep shade of tall forest trees; several temperate rainforest species grow here, olivinos, canelos, arrayanes, some over 30m tall, most with the trunks covered in lichens, mosses and epiphytes. Only the gnarly trunked, but smooth orange-barked arrayan kept a clean profile. In this high ridge, the bases of the trees were dotted with the nest-burrows of fardelos (a small shearwater); we walked by quietly not to disturb them.

Three different types of the Isla Mocha temperate rain forest

Descending gently through the dim light beneath the dense canopy of this impressive temperate rainforest, we were accompanied by the sounds of the rarely seen forest birds, sometimes twittering, sometimes deep and haunting. After a while, we could see the light of an opening and soon emerged at the edge of Laguna Hermosa, which lived up to is name, the luxuriant vegetation surrounding it reflected in its still waters.

As we sat and contemplated the scene, cloud began spilling over the top of the ridge and waves of mist swept across the lake - the changeability of the weather on this island is impressive.

Silhouette of a rain forest giant

The still waters of Laguna Hermosa

A rest beside the lake

Descending the western slopes

View westward from the Sendero Nuevo

From the lake, we started a more rapid and sometimes slippery descent through the tall trees to a lookout over the western coastline before joining up with the Sendero Nuevo and following it out through a dense grove of olivinos to the western edge of the forest.

In the trunk of a liana-entwined arrayan

Walking through a grove of olivinos

The last of the rain forest

Open vegetation on the forest fringe

Between forest and sea

The sun broke through as, from here, we crossed a series of old dunes covered in coastal shrubs and pasture to reach the white sands of the Playa Blanca. A short stroll along the windswept beach and we were at the Faro Viejo, the old lighthouse that we had visited yesterday, and the end of the island crossing.

Crossing the Playa Grande to Faro Viejo

Isla Mocha sunset

We had arrived a bit early, so we continued on in the sunshine until we saw the distant sight of Mario's old yellow 4WD heading up the beach to collect us. It had been a good walk in a very different part of the island - the forest of Isla Mocha, virtually untouched despite centuries of human occupation of the island, remains magnificent.

Farewell Isla Mocha

The winds had blown themselves out for the day of our departure and we spent the morning enjoying the still air, sunshine and peaceful ambiance of the island. Our flight out that afternoon over the dimpled blue waters of the Pacific back to the cliffs and black sand beaches of the mainland was as smooth as our flight in. Thanks Mario, Imme and all at Casa Hahn for making us feel part of the family, showing us your island and feeding us so well. The ancient Mapuche believed that the souls of the dead travelled to Isla Mocha to be revived - in our modern and stress-filled times, you can go to this isolated and tranquil island to revive the the souls of the living.

A parting delicacy - fresh crab claws for dinner

Heading back across the Pacific .... cross the black sand beach and coastal cliffs ...

... and land on the mainland once again